NEW WAVE

How feminists took on the mainstream media and won

Go to the home page of Cosmopolitan.com, and you’ll find plenty of its signature man-pleasing sex tricks and lifestyle tips. There are photos of Miley Cyrus’s engagement ring, a list of sex positions for when you’re feeling lazy, and a quiz about baby showers.

But these days, you’ll also find ample political commentary and critiques of the status quo. One recent article explores abortion providers’ reactions to inflammatory comments from Donald Trump, while another explains why Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right to resist calls for her retirement. Another post suggests that photoshopping models in advertisements is bad for business. In recent years, Cosmopolitan.com—along with much of the online mainstream media—has undergone a feminist awakening.

The shift at Cosmpolitan.com can be attributed in large part to its editor-in-chief Amy Odell, who came to the site from Buzzfeed in 2013 with the goal of growing Cosmopolitan’s online reach. To that end, Odell hired well-known feminist writers like Jill Filipovic and Brittney Cooper, operating under the theory that “articles about restrictions on women’s reproductive rights are just as shareable as slideshows of cleavage,” as Politico wrote in 2014.

 Cosmopolitan.com—along with much of the online mainstream media—has undergone a feminist awakening. So far, Odell’s bet is paying off. A recent piece by Filipovic skewering attempts to frame Kim Kardashian’s nude photos as female empowerment has been shared 13,000 times. And when Gloria Steinem was criticized for her comments about female Bernie supporters, Filipovic jumped in with a smart take defending the feminist leader. Her piece was shared 24,500 times–far more than the typical number of shares.

The same pattern holds true for articles by Brittney Cooper, a writer who began covering race and gender issues for the site last fall. Her first piece, which debunked common myths about the activist movement Black Lives Matter, was shared 9,000 times. One of Cooper’s latest articles, in which she argues that Hillary Clinton is held to a higher standard than Bernie Sanders because of her gender, was shared 5,900 times.

Both Cooper and Filipovic began writing on feminist blogs in the 2000s and have since become highly sought-after contributors online. Filipovic, who wrote for the blog Feministe from 2005 to 2013, was a columnist for the Guardian before she started writing for Cosmopolitan.com. Cooper, who started a blog called Crunk Feminist Collective in 2010, now contributes regularly to Salon and Cosmopolitan.com.

Many other feminist writers have recently made the leap from smaller sites to big-name brands as well. The democratizing force of the internet has prompted legacy publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post to give space to marginalized perspectives, sending them looking for writers with expertise on feminist issues. Meanwhile, digital media startups like Mic and Fusion aim to reinvent journalism for millennials with an emphasis on identity politics. All this adds up to an unprecedented occurrence in the women’s rights movement: Feminists are breaking into the mainstream media.

Girls gone viral

The success of feminist journalism should not be surprising. After all, women make up half the world’s population, and it is natural that they would want to read articles that are relevant to their own advancement. Yet only in the internet age have feminist voices finally been able to break the stranglehold that straight, white men have historically had on the media. Today, women can write from feminist perspectives without relying on the support of a large, traditional news outlet to spread their message. And they have.

Twitter has played a big role in amplifying women’s voices online. Women around the world frequently use the social media site, which was founded in 2006, to take corporations and the mainstream media to task. Hashtags like #NotBuyingIt, which protests sexism in advertising, and #WhyIStayed, which was used by victims of domestic violence to combat victim-shaming by the press, went viral in 2012 and 2014, respectively, garnering millions of tweets each. Today, women can write from feminist perspectives without relying on the support of a large, traditional news outlet. 

Rosemary Clark, a PhD candidate in communication studies at the University of Pennsylvania who studies feminist media online, sees social media as the main reason media outlets started looking for writers and editors who could cover current issues from a feminist perspective.

“Sometimes it can sound harsh to think about these things in market terms, but there are literally millions of people tweeting under these hashtags when they go viral,” she says. “It shows that there is a market that is dissatisfied with the mainstream media.”

Perceptive editors like Cosmopolitan.com’s Odell have realized that publishing news written from a feminist perspective is good for business. This attitude marks a stark departure from the prevailing views of the 1970s, when Gloria Steinem launched Ms. magazine to write about current issues affecting women—to the dour predictions of just about every (male) editor at the time.

Feminism on the fringe

No one expected Ms. to do well.

“I’ll give it six months before they run out of things to say,” ABC Nightly News anchor Harry Reasoner said of the magazine after the first issue came out.

Ms. defied the critics and went on to gain a loyal readership, reaching a print circulation of 450,000 by 1981. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, women’s magazines with a feminist bent like Working Woman, Savvy, New York Woman, and Bitch proliferated in the wake of the magazine’s success. Meanwhile, writers like Andrea Dworkin, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Judith Butler pushed the envelope of feminist theory and criticism.

 Articles that treated feminism as a passing fad reflected the views of those who controlled the media. But the feminist movement was largely ignored by the mainstream media. Every few years, a feature article on feminism would show up in one of the country’s leading publications. These articles cast feminism as a subject to be analyzed, rather than as a perspective through which to view culture and world events, and appeared eager to sound a death knell for the movement.

In 1981, for example, The New York Times ran a story titled “Voices from the Post-Feminist Generation.” The author, a self-proclaimed “women’s libber,” interviewed young women who declared that feminism was dead. In 1989, Time magazine ran a cover story pondering whether feminism had a future. Nine years later, in 1998, it ran another cover story titled “Is Feminism Dead?” This time, their answer was a definite “yes.”

Articles that treated feminism as a passing fad reflected the views of those who controlled the media, according to Jennifer Pozner, the director of media analysis organization Women In Media & News.

 “Media consolidation basically pushed out the feminist press from existing.” “We were locked out of the mainstream,” Pozner, who began her career writing for a progressive women’s newspaper called Sojourner: The Women’s Forum in the late 1990s, says. “Corporate media had a monopoly on the range of public debate at that time.”

In 2001, Ms. shifted from a monthly to a quarterly publication cycle. Other feminist publications, like those mentioned above, began to follow suit or shut down altogether as print media began its decline.

“Media consolidation basically pushed out the feminist press from existing,” Pozner says, of the changes that occurred in the early 2000s.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the end of feminist media—it was a new beginning. In the coming decade, feminists would gain a transformative foothold in public discourse through the democratizing force of the internet.

The birth of blogs

Between 1999 and 2006, the number of blogs on the internet climbed from just 23 sites to 50 million. People went online to write about everything from politics to parenting. And feminist blogs proved to be particularly successful.

“You had people writing about everything under the sun, but the feminist blogs seemed to do very well,” Jill Filipovic tells Quartz. “I was just blogging into the ether, and, within a year of starting it, I found these other feminist websites.”

Filipovic began writing for Feministe in 2005. The blog had been started five years prior, at the beginning of the blog boom, by a woman named Lauren Bruce. Bruce invited Filipovic and others to contribute, turning her personal blog into a group site.

By 2007, Feministe was getting over 100,000 page views a day, according to Filipovic, who managed the blog from 2006 to 2013. The blog’s tagline, “In defense of the sanctimonious women’s studies set,” reflects its theory-heavy content. Its writers excel at sophisticated political commentary and pointing out holes in the logic of misogynistic op-ed arguments, garnering credibility for the site in academic circles.

 The internet’s open platform provided often-marginalized women with a space to make their voices heard. The blog Feministing, founded by Jessica Valenti in 2004, was also making a name for itself during this time. Like Feministe, Feministing has multiple writers who analyze the news from a feminist perspective. It features cultural criticism alongside the heavier stuff, with articles on everything from the erasure of lesbian relationships to police brutality against student protestors in India.

Part of what set blogs apart from their print predecessors was their effort to broaden the focus of feminist media beyond the experiences of white, heterosexual women. The blogs sought out contributions from women of different races and sexual orientations as well as trans women, fostering an intersectional feminist movement online.

“There were a tremendous number of people writing online at the time, writing about feminism in all sorts of different ways,” Valenti, who now writes a column for The Guardian, says.

 Internet users had to go out and look for the feminist blogosphere if they wanted to find it. The internet’s open platform provided often-marginalized women with a space to make their voices heard. And when the feminist blogosphere failed to include or address diverse perspectives, their readers could write rebuttals in the comments sections, submit their own articles or even launch new publications. The personal relationships that bloggers on Feministing formed with their readers helped foster this accountability and bring in different perspectives, according to Valenti.

“The comments section was a big place where you found people. We had close relationships with our commenters,” she says.

Writers like Valenti and Filipovic talked to each other regularly as well, creating an amorphous, interconnected community that grew throughout the 2000s. But this network was largely self-selecting. Much like the women who bought Ms. magazine, internet users had to go out and look for the feminist blogosphere if they wanted to find it.

Gawker’s gateway feminism

That began to change in the late 2000s, as a new breed of commercial feminist websites reached a wider audience online. Jezebel, launched in 2007 by the popular gossip site Gawker to capitalize on its 70% female readership, became the first online women’s publication to successfully combine feminist writing with a for-profit motive.

Anna Holmes, who was hired to start Jezebel, cut her teeth writing at women’s publications like Glamour, Star, and InStyle, but was familiar with the feminist blogosphere. She decided to merge these interests in Jezebel, creating a women’s site that was critical of traditional women’s media.

“The mandate was to create a website for women about sex and celebrities and fashion, but I was going to do that in the way that I wanted to,” Holmes says. “I decided it would be a site that would punch up at mainstream women’s media and expose it for the crap that it was.”

Jezebel’s combative, witty tone and accessible subject matter set it apart from more theory-focused sites like Feministe and Feministing. Jezebel was blunt in its takes on subjects ranging from sexism on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to women’s bodies (one classic post chronicled 10 days in the life of a tampon). And as The New York Times memorably wrote, the site wasn’t afraid to pick a fight.

 Jezebel’s combative, witty tone and accessible subject matter set it apart from more theory-focused sites like Feministe and Feministing. The site took its first big “punch” at mainstream women’s media in the summer of 2007, with a contest that promised $10,000 to whichever reader could dig up the best unedited version of an image used on a major magazine’s cover. The winner, likely submitted by a turncoat employee at Redbook, was a picture of Faith Hill that appeared, heavily retouched, on the July 2007 cover of the magazine. Jezebel published the photos side by side, denoting the ways her image had been altered to erase her crow’s feet, winnow down her arms, and narrow her cheeks. The unrealistic beauty standards perpetuated by the doctored image sparked outrage across the internet, gaining coverage from national outlets.

In its first year, Jezebel surpassed the popularity of parent site Gawker, pulling in 10 million monthly page views. Slate soon followed suit by launching its own feminist blog, Double X (now The XX Factor), in fall of 2007. Feminist sites like The Frisky, launched in 2008, and The Awl Network’s The Hairpin, launched in 2010, took cues from Jezebel as well.

 “I decided it would be a site that would punch up at mainstream women’s media and expose it for the crap that it was.” Holmes calls what she created at Jezebel “gateway feminism.” Her goal, she says, was to draw readers in with the site’s pulpy subjects and make them stay for the smart, serious articles tucked in between the site’s eye-catching headlines. Her plan was so successful that the very magazines Jezebel lampooned began to adopt its feminist perspective.

“They were aping the way we covered things,” Holmes says. “It was kind of a mindfuck.”

Soon after, Holmes remembers, editors at mainstream publications began looking for feminist writers.

“Around 2009, I started seeing women’s magazines and the Times and the Post offering op-eds to those people and commissioning pieces from them that took a feminist critical eye,” she says.

When she heard Cosmopolitan.com had hired Jill Filipovic, she was shocked.

“I mean, Cosmo was one of the worst offenders just a few years prior,” Holmes says. “It was exciting, but I couldn’t believe it.”

Moving into mainstream media

Holmes left Jezebel in 2010 and freelanced for the next four years, writing columns for The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post. In May 2014, Jill Filipovic profiled her for Cosmopolitan.com. In the piece, Holmes said she didn’t know whether she would take another editorial position. The next day, news broke that Holmes had just accepted a high-profile position as an editor at the millennial-focused network Fusion.

Fusion’s website, launched by Disney-owned ABC News and Univision in early 2015, showcases new media’s attempts to foreground identity issues in order to connect with millennials. Recent headlines from its “Voices” section include “How this 29-year-old’s passion for human rights led her into the abortion fight” and “When you want to be into BDSM but it’s too soon because you’re black”—both the kinds of stories that once lived exclusively on feminist blogs.

 “You have a changing demographic in the American electorate and those changes weren’t being reflected in the mainstream media.” The media startup Mic, which also competes for millennial eyeballs, recently hired former feminist blogger and editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay to run its “Identities” section. Mukhopadhyay started her career by blogging about her perspective as an Indian-American feminist at Feministing, and went on to manage the blog. She now edits stories at Mic about what it’s like to be a gay, black, female pop star and how bad the GOP candidates’ health plans are for women.

The popularity of such articles reflects the changing demographics of the United States, according to Mukhopadhyay. By the numbers, it’s clear that the reign of straight, white men is waning as populations of single women and non-white minorities grow. As writers in the vanguard of the online feminist movement, people like Valenti, Filipovic, Cooper, Holmes, and Mukhopadhyay are valuable hires for publications trying to reach the next generation.

“You have a changing demographic in the American electorate and those changes weren’t being reflected in the mainstream media,” Mukhopadhyay says. “Bloggers took that on themselves.”

A new legacy

Today, the feminist blogosphere is in its second generation. Many of its founders have moved on to salaried positions at mainstream outlets, while the original blogs are still run as not-for-profit publications by volunteers.

“The infrastructure that was built by feminist blogs online has been incorporated into the mainstream media,” Mukhopadhyay says.

Feminist perspectives now show up regularly in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Just last week, the Times published an op-ed about the objectification of women by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And when it needed an explanation for why young women weren’t voting for Clinton, the Times turned to Filipovic for an analysis of sexism in the workplace. In 2015, The Washington Post ran a series on intersectional feminism, which included a piece by Brittney Cooper and a piece by Latoya Peterson, founder of the race and pop culture blog Racialicious. And this January, the Post ran a first-person account of one woman’s fight against abortion restrictions titled, “I’m a successful lawyer and mother, because I had an abortion.

These articles do not have the word “feminism” in their headlines, nor are they explicitly about the feminist movement itself. Rather, they give voice to an important part of our national story that the mainstream press has historically tended to overlook.

“These outlets are starting to understand that when you leave out the voices of women and people of color as creators and shapers of news, you are creating an inaccurate story,” media critic Jennifer Pozner says. “Our work isn’t done, but we’ve forced an opening.”

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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